Church Leadership Stumbles Again

By David Nyhan
Gloucester Daily Times [Andover MA]
November 20, 2004

Not that we needed further proof of the way the local leadership of the Roman Catholic Church still doesn't get it, but what happened at Andover's St. Augustine parish the day after the election is illustrative.

State Rep. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, re-elected the day before, was phoned by the Rev. William Cleary and told she could no longer lead the children's choir and sing as cantor because of her public support for abortion rights.

L'Italien met with the priest next morning at her home. Cleary said she could no longer step on the altar or play any role in church functions.

She has three kids in the choir, has a stellar record, has the confidence of the voters, and yet she got the boot from Cleary.

Cleary told The Eagle-Tribune the lawmaker, who represents West Boxford and parts of Haverhill, Methuen, Andover, North Andover and Georgetown, "is against the church's position," and that four parishioners demanded he crack down on her, as urged by Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who has said pro-choice Catholics, whether elected officials or not, should not take Communion or be welcome in church in any but the most passive fashion.

How much sense does this make? Reeling from scandal, led by men who countenanced serial pederast priests molesting thousands of children, the church is booting the choir lady.

The model that seems to make the most sense in trying to understand what is happening to the Roman Catholic Church in this country is the example of an old Rust Belt industry that is running out of customers.

Look at it this way: The guys and they are all guys running the joint are trying to run it the way they ran it 50 to 100 years ago. Back then, the pews were stuffed to overflowing with docile immigrants poor, disorganized and marginalized by the dog-eat-dog society into which they were trying to assimilate. They put their pennies and nickels into the collection plate and built magnificent brick and stone edifices near the factories and fishing docks where they labored.

Now, like the steel, auto, or major airline companies, the church is running in the red.

Shuttered parish churches crop up everywhere more than 80 in the Boston Archdiocese alone, as the archbishop who replaced the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law grapples with a job that seems to be too big for him. Declining vocations, a huge drop in donations, and the growing unwillingness of some of the most influential and able Catholic lay people to come to the rescue of overmatched diocesan executives, both lay and clergy, have combined like a perfect storm.

The disgraceful performance of Law and his key bishops in their cover-up of the massive clergy sex scandal has disgusted many Catholics; and there has been little repercussion or retribution among the bishops, lawyers and administrators who took active parts in the massive and multilayered scandal.

The mismanagement in Boston, the fall-off in revenue, and the botching of parish closings by a hierarchy that stubbornly refuses to come to grips with the modern laity, have put the proud old Boston Archdiocese at risk of bankruptcy. Already two dioceses elsewhere have gone bankrupt because of costs associated with the widespread priestly sexual crimes.

The health care and meager retirement arrangements of the priests and nuns who served honorably for five or six decades are at risk. There is nothing helpful coming from the Vatican, where an aging, infirm pope seems never to have realized the damage done to his American flock by this systemic failure of leadership.

John Paul II has appointed virtually all of the cardinals who'll vote on his successor, and well over half the 4,000 active Catholic bishops worldwide. But he only promoted yes-men priests who hewed to his strict right-wing agenda, making abortion the church's signature moral issue, much to the delight of the Republican Party in the United States. Forget about opposing the Iraq war or capital punishment, which are supposed to be Catholic dogma as well.

So Sen. John F. Kerry's position in favor of free choice for women on abortion and for stem cell research cost him the Catholic vote. The previous Sen. J.F.K. of Massachusetts had his own problems with Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, who much preferred the incipient criminal, Richard Nixon, in 1960.

Kerry, the first Catholic nominee since JFK 44 years ago, lost the Catholic vote overall to President Bush by five points, though the Democrat carried Hispanic Catholics by 19 percent. How come? Because cardinals, bishops and priests from Rome on down into Colorado and Missouri and other dioceses, denounced Kerry, and helped re-elect Bush.

The Catholic hierarchy was yanked to the right two decades ago by this pope, and the right turn increased dramatically after the election. O'Malley, who has yet to replace the discredited key advisers who counseled Law, his chancellor and his legal counsel, nevertheless demands people like Ted Kennedy, Kerry and the bulk of the Bay State congressional delegation, refrain from taking Communion.

At a meeting of 900 Catholics in Worcester last weekend sponsored by the reform group Voice of the Faithful, the Rev. James Scahill of St. Michael's in East Longmeadow drew a round of standing applause when he said Cardinal Law is one prelate "who should be sitting on a jail-cell cot and instead sits pompously on his throne in a Roman basilica."

He denounced Law and three former bishops under him Bishops John McCormack of Manchester, N.H.; Thomas Daily, retired from Brooklyn's diocese; and Alfred Hughes of New Orleans. There are, Scahill said, "certain bishops in the U.S. who should be in jail." He added, "In their complicit silence, they have betrayed truth and turned their back on children. By and large, the clerics have been myopic company puppets, instead of men."

Another priest honored by Voice of the Faithful, Rev. Thomas Doyle, said Scahill was risking his job, his pension and his health insurance by criticizing the bishops. Doyle said many bishops covered up by hiring lawyers and PR firms and making hush money payments costing millions.

"Why has there not been a groundswell over this horror, the rape and sodomization of children?" he asked.

The answer, of course, is that the laity has been largely quiescent. Most Catholics continue to go to church. Many, but not all, still put their money in the plate, trusting that an institution that's been around for 2,000 years will clean up this mess eventually.

But until that happens, that faction of priests that has been promoted and empowered by this pope will continue to insist there is no room in their church, the way they run it, for anyone who disagrees with their conservative dogma. The fundamentalists in Texas are booting evolution out of textbooks, and the ones in Massachusetts are making it hard for hundreds of thousands of Bay State Catholics to keep coming to church.

This is not, as they say in business school, a growth strategy. The right-wing faction would rather downsize, outsource and otherwise shrink, rather than welcome all comers in the spirit of Christ.

David Nyhan is a longtime Boston political commentator.


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